Thursday, Oct 02, 2014

Scent of a tiger: Census hinges on scat in no-go areas

Those volunteering to help sniff out the presence of the big cat have to first be trained by forest officials on the procedure for collection. Those volunteering to help sniff out the presence of the big cat have to first be trained by forest officials on the procedure for collection.
Written by Anubhuti Vishnoi | New Delhi | Posted: February 16, 2014 2:20 am | Updated: February 16, 2014 2:42 am

As tiger reserves across the country count their big cats for the census held every four years, the inaccessible forests in Naxal-infested areas and the difficult terrain in the Northeast — where the census is being conducted for the first time — are posing unusual challenges to authorities.

Out of bounds for almost all government machinery, huge parts of these forests will not be able to map their tiger population with the sophisticated camera-traps being used at other reserves to capture photographic evidence.

The only way tigers in the Dibang valley and the Namdhapa reserves in Arunachal Pradesh, the Dhampa reserve in Mizoram and the forests of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh will be counted, officials said, is by what they leave behind — their scat or excreta samples.

And the samples come at a price. Those tasked with fetching samples will be paid between Rs 200 and Rs 500 by forest divisions.

Also, not just any scat sample will do. The sample should weigh at least 20 gm and be fresh, meaning not older than 2-3 days. And each sample has to be handled with a new set of gloves to avoid cross contamination.

Those volunteering to help sniff out the presence of the big cat have to first be trained by forest officials on the procedure for collection.

They will be sent with special kits and have to scoop up the scat and store it in a vial/tube containing buffer or 70 per cent alcohol. These tubes will be prepared in duplicate with GPS coordinates and the date clearly recorded on them.

Tiger scat samples are usually found near water bodies frequented by them and have to be in untampered condition to be eligible for DNA testing. Scat analysis is also considered one of the best non-invasive genetic monitoring of the tiger population.

The ongoing 2014 tiger census is an extensive exercise covering 5,00,000 sq km of forested area. Along with data on tigers, data is also being collected on co-predators, prey, habitat and human disturbance.

S P Yadav, DIG of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, said that this year’s census will yield quite a good estimate of the actual population of tigers due to the extensive use of technology, hard evidence in the way of tigers caught on camera. But all these come to a nought in Naxal areas.

“While we are trying to set up camera traps where we can, here you have to largely rely on villagers and forest guards to find you scat samples. These people have to be trained by the forest divisions in identifying tiger scat. However, locals from near forests anyway are able to do so on their own, having continued…

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